Ever since the term gastropub migrated here from London a decade ago, it’s been used to describe a whole range of boozy New York establishments, from neo-speakeasies to beer dens to Brooklyn whiskey bars. But if you find yourself pining, on a steamy summer evening, for something approaching the real thing, I suggest you book a table at a curious, out-of-the way little restaurant called Hospoda, which opened this spring on the ground floor of the Bohemian National Hall (also the Czech consulate) on East 73rd Street. You will find a cool, well-appointed room and tables filled with pink-cheeked gentlemen nursing mugs of pilsner served at exactly 44.5 degrees. You will find newfangled Bohemian specialties like duck breast with red-cabbage essence; waiters conversant in all sorts of intricate, beer-geek brewing techniques; and a burly, old-world barkeep who looks like an extra from the set of Game of Thrones.
The restaurant’s head barman, as it happens, is Lukas Svoboda, and if you consult the restaurant’s website, you will find that he was named International Master Bartender of the Year in 2010, beating out “4,000 bartenders from 17 countries.” He’s from Prague, where the locals treat their homegrown pilsner with the kind of obsessive reverence that Kentuckians reserve for their bourbon. The only beer on tap at Hospoda (the name means “pub” in Czech) is Pilsner Urquell, which is a little like saying the only soft drink available at the new U.S. embassy restaurant in Prague is Coke. But Svoboda and his assistants serve their smooth, piercingly refreshing brew in a variety of esoteric, nontraditional ways, ranging from Cochtan (served neat, with no head) to the mellifluously named Milko, which consists of an entire mug filled with clouds of cooling foam.
My mug of frothy, faintly intoxicating Milko went very nicely with the dainty block of roast pork belly I ordered one evening, which the kitchen plates with a pleasantly chewy dumpling made with wheat flour instead of potatoes. The chefs at Hospoda come from acclaimed Prague restaurants, and they’re adept at taking lumpen recipes from the old country and imbuing them with a gourmet lightness. Potatoes appear in a delicately wrought four-way tasting “variation,” garnished with, among other things, sprigs of purslane and lovage oil. Eggs are poached in ravioli skins, or flash-fried whole, and served with buttery chanterelles. The house-smoked beef tongue has a sweet, almost confectionery quality to it, and so does the rabbit, which is “slow-baked” in tiny morsels and flavored with a rich, bacony red-cabbage reduction.
The problem with the food at Hospoda, if any, is that there isn’t quite enough of it. The menu’s arranged in the dreaded small-plates tasting format (two dishes for $32, three for $45), which means the servings are bite-size, and it doesn’t always feel like you’re enjoying an entire meal, no matter how many things you order. This lack of rhythm is compounded by the service, which varied, on my visits, between competent and completely haywire. On the haywire night, dishes were slapped on the table without explanation, the kitchen ran out of ingredients, and the wait between courses dragged on and on. So go early for your dinner, when the kitchen is less pressed. When dessert rolls around, order the caramel-chocolate ganache or the dense, Bohemian-style sugar buns drizzled with a creamy rum sauce. And if you’re still not satisfied after that, loosen your belt a notch or two, call for the bartender, and order another beer.
Beer is also the theme at Birreria, the latest Bastianich-Batali experiment in popular dining, which overlooks Madison Square Park on the roof of the building that houses their great food-hall juggernaut, Eataly. To gain entrance to this European-style beer garden, you must first pass (often very slowly, since there’s usually a line) through the store’s rather meager Italian and American beer section, down a back corridor, to a rattletrap office elevator. After a waiting period, the elevator (capacity: eight people) will take you and assorted beer lovers (business revelers, awkward dating couples, taciturn brew scholars in from Flatbush with their Viking beards) creaking slowly up to the fourteenth floor. From there, you must wander down another corridor and climb several flights of steps smelling of old beer to the restaurant itself, which consists of a long, raucously crowded bar and rows of wood tables arrayed under a slightly leaky polycarbonate roof.
Like many of the dining operations at Eataly, this one feels jerry-rigged and haphazard, until the meal arrives. The beers are competent by today’s brew-snob standards (there are ten draughts on tap and more than twenty bottles to choose from), but what really gets your attention is the food. We feasted on platters of fat, beer-hall-style sausages (try the cotechino and the bratwurst), bountiful boards of salumi, and deliciously crunchy, silver-dollar-size shiitake “fritti,” garnished with frizzled sage. For under $20, you can obtain a soft, sticky chunk of pork shoulder (sweetly braised in beer and apricots) to go with your mug of malty Eataly Pale Ale, or a buttery, crisp chicken thigh garnished with sweet summer corn. The desserts (overchilled tiramisu, a random selection of biscotti) are negligible, but chances are you’ll be so boozy and pleasantly bloated by the end of your meal that you won’t notice.
Address: 321 E. 73rd St., nr. First Ave.; 212-861-1038
Hours: Dinner Monday through Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight.
Prices: Small-plate dinners $32 (for two courses) to $45 (for three).
Ideal Meal: Smoked tongue or potato variation, pork belly with red-cabbage essence or slow-baked rabbit, sweet buns with rum sauce.
Note: Unlike some gastropubs, this one offers sophisticated wine pairings with your dinner. Focus on sweet, full-bodied whites, like the excellent ’09 Granache Blanc from Epiphany, in Santa Barbara.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the quality of the cooking, minus one for the limited selection and the service.
Address: Eataly, 200 Fifth Ave., nr. 23rd St.; 212-229-2560
Hours: Sunday to Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., Thursday to Saturday to 2 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers $11 to $21; entrées $17 to $24.
Ideal Meal: Shiitake “fritti,” cotechino sausage, chicken or braised pork shoulder.
Note: Hungry groups of five or more should consider the Piatto Misto, which includes pork shoulder plus all the sausages for $95.
Scratchpad: If you can handle the heat, crowds, and omnipresent smell of old beer, the rib-sticking grub is worth the trip.